Top 10 ‘what ifs’ of the 2018 World Cup: Messi’s penalty vs. Iceland, Spain’s Lopetegui decision

ESPN’s Charlie Gibson puts a bow on Project Russia from a scintillating final, as France claimed World Cup glory.

This World Cup, as with any major tournament, has hinged on some pivotal moments. But what if they had gone the other way. Here are 10 “What if…” moments from the last month in Russia…

10. Harry Kane had scored against Croatia

In the end, there were a wide range of reasons for England’s defeat to Croatia: Gareth Southgate’s side not creating enough chances, inexplicably being outrun by a team who’d previously played two extra times, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic. But in the first half, or at least for the first 20 minutes or so, they were well on top, and needed to score a second goal. Their best chance came when Harry Kane was put through, his first shot was saved but then somehow he hit the post from four yards out with the goal gaping – although the second chance was later ruled offside. If that had gone in, it might have killed the semi-final…

9. Mehdi Taremi had taken his late chance against Portugal

This World Cup has seen some frantic finishes, and perhaps the most underrated was between Iran and Portugal in the group stage. Portugal were 1-0 ahead from just before half-time, then Iran equalised at the very end through Karim Ansarifard from the penalty spot. They were still heading out though…unless they could find another goal in the closing seconds, which Mehdi Taremi had a brilliant chance to get, only to put his shot into the side-netting. That would have put them through to the knockout phase for the first ever time, a fine story for a team that had to deal with so much in the build-up to the tournament.

8. Edinson Cavani doesn’t get injured

The sight of Cristiano Ronaldo helping Edinson Cavani off the pitch in the round-of-16 game between Portugal and Uruguay was one made for memes celebrating “respect” or “sportsmanship”. Even though the new Juventus forward (when will that stop being weird?) was simply trying to hurry the game along as time ran out. But Cavani’s injury had a greater impact than just on irritating social media content: it ruled him out of Uruguay’s semi-final against France, where even with Luis Suarez they looked toothless in attack. With him in the side, they would have been anything but toothless.

Edinson Cavani suffered an untimely calf injury after scoring a brace against Portugal.
Edinson Cavani’s unfortunate injury really derailed Uruguay’s growing momentum.

7. Japan take a short corner against Belgium

There have been a few extraordinary games at this World Cup, but Japan vs. Belgium was up there with the best of them. It looked like the vaunted Belgians were on their way out when Japan went 2-0 up, and even when they drew level extra time would have guaranteed nothing. In the very last minute of injury time, Japan had a corner: the sensible thing to do was take it short, keep the ball safe and ensure an added 30 minutes. But they crossed, the ball was cleared, Belgium countered at pace and Nacer Chadli, of all people, won it.

6. James Rodriguez doesn’t get injured

Before their round-of-16 game, a common assessment was that if James Rodriguez was fit then Colombia were slight favourites, if not then England were slight favourites. And so it came to pass, but most people were not quite expecting a James-less Colombia to be quite so passive without their talisman. Sure, shorn of their most creative player many teams would approach a game differently, but Colombia seemed to take it to a ridiculous degree, initially trying to spoil before finally deciding to play as they can in the closing stages. If they’d done that from the off, with Rodriguez, English optimism might have been squashed quite early on.

5. Roberto Martinez doesn’t tinker so much

It’s very easy to lean on post-hoc conclusions in football, particularly when it comes to tactics. When a manager makes a system change and his team wins, the change was correct. If they lose, it was wrong. Of course it’s far more complicated than that, but in the case of Belgium you can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Roberto Martinez had just kept things simple. For two years, he played a rough 3-4-3 system and they didn’t lose a game, admittedly against largely modest opposition. Then when it came to playing Brazil and France, he reverted to a back four: it worked on the former occasion, not the latter. Might the tinkering have disrupted the Belgian players? Quite possibly. If only he hadn’t tried to be quite so clever…

Roberto Martinez might have outsmarted himself vs. France.
Did Roberto Martinez outsmart himself with his lineup vs. France?

4. England don’t sack Sam Allardyce

This is cheating a little as obviously the event in question occurred nearly two years ago, but from an English perspective this really is the great “what if” of this World Cup. Allardyce, at the time, was the most capable of the English candidates, but it’s impossible to see him creating the same likeable and relaxed atmosphere around the team as Gareth Southgate has done. Rather than blowing Panama away they might have laboured to a stodgy 1-0 win, after possibly a grim draw against Tunisia. Would they have held their nerve against Colombia? Would they have dispatched of Sweden so calmly? Very doubtful.

3. Lionel Messi scores against Iceland

The benefit of Argentina and Portugal exiting the World Cup at a relatively early stage was that we were spared the constant debates over Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. On the face of things, had Messi converted his penalty against Iceland it might not have changed things massively. However, a victory in that game would have altered their attitude in the following game against Croatia, and could well have prevented them from capitulating so embarrassingly. If they’d won the group, they would not have run into France quite so early, and a more straightforward path to the semi-finals would have emerged. Of course Argentina had bigger problems than Messi’s penalty, but it was still a moment that could have changed things.

Lionel Messi's missed penalty added to a frustrating World Cup opener for Argentina.
Lionel Messi’s penalty vs. Iceland might have had the potential to change Argentina’s entire World Cup.

2. Germany weren’t quite so complacent

Sometimes calamities happen for no particular reason. Three games is too small a sample size to draw definitive conclusions. But if we are to cite a particular cause for Germany’s first-round exit, an apparent complacency coming into the tournament seems to be the most plausible explanation. Poor results in the build-up to the tournament were ignored, a spirit of “it’ll be alright on the night” taking over. “Perhaps we believed that we would turn things around after the friendlies,” admitted Joachim Low after their elimination. “But that wasn’t the case.” No it wasn’t.

1. Spain don’t sack Julen Lopetegui

Maintaining their principles is all very well, but the decision by the Spanish FA to sack Julen Lopetegui two days before the start of the tournament, in order to “minimize” the disruption caused by his sudden appointment as Real Madrid coach, always felt odd. Of course ultimately it was more Real and Lopetegui’s fault than the federation’s, but the late change threw their campaign into chaos. Ultimately they were only eliminated via a penalty shootout, but they hadn’t been convincing before that and should still have beaten Russia. What might have been, with just a little stability.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.

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